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French Wine Classifications
The system protects and identifies the names of French wines, and guarantees a degree of quality and the geographic origin of production - which in practice guarantees grape variety or varieties.
France's appellation system was created in 1935. It is a complex system of laws defining each wine region and its boundaries, It imposes strict rules for winemaking practices. As of 2010 there were over 450 controlled appellations under the AOC and VDQS titles, and a further 150 Vin de Pays titles. In touring French regions the designations are a useful guide for purchases. For picnics and wines you intend to consume shortly after purchase well selected Vin du Tables and AOC wines can be excellent value purchases, while for wines to take home and cellar you will want Grand and Premier Crus.
• AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlee): An AOC classification covering about 40% of French wine production, the AOC acts as a buyers guarantee that a wine is of a particular quality, geographic origin and style. Also that the product has been produced in the named area in accordance with local wine production laws and regulations using only the allowed grape variety or varieties. All AOC appellation titles are derived from the location where the wines was made. The regional AOC Bourgogne, for example, covers more than 300 villages spread over Burgundy, AOC is further broken down by naming villages and sub-regions. All Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines come under AOC level appellations, and imply a further step up in terms of quality.
• Grand Cru is the highest possible classification for a French wine. It is used in two distinct ways, relating either to the winery or the land from which the wine comes. The latter system has been more widely adopted across France, not just in Burgundy but in Champagne, Alsace, Languedoc-Roussillon and the Loire Valley.
• Premier Cru is used in two ways; to denote the highest tier within an existing Grand Cru) and to denote land of superior quality, but which falls short of Grand Cru status.
• AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protegee): the European equivalent of the French national-level AOC.
• VDQS (Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure): This level covers very few wines and is a ring on the ladder up for appellations seeking promotion to AOC/AOP status. VDQS titles represent less than one percent of France's total wine production, and change often. It is rare to see VDQS on a wine label. The category is now removed from France's wine quality spectrum effective as of the 2011 vintage. With close attention you can get a really quality wine for a low price in this category.
• VDP (Vin de Pays) means 'Wine of the Land' or 'Country Wine'.. This classification is below VDQS but above 'Vin de Table', and was introduced in the 1970's. The classification covers about one quarter of French wine. There are over one hundred VDP titles, each denoting the geographical area in which the wines are made. These areas are divided into three types; the five very broad 'VDPs Regionaux', the 52 slightly more precise 'VDPs de Departement' and the 100 or so location-specific 'VDPs de Zone'. VDP labels are permitted to indicate the grape varieties and production methods and the vintage on the label. These wines are often really good and somettimes exceptional value. • •VDT (Vin de Table): 'Table Wine' - the entry level category of French wine. The least regulated of the quality levels, VDT wines can be made anywhere in France blending grapes from various regions VDT wine labels have no official statement about region, vintage or grape varieties. Recently a trend away from this lable and with the expense of wine touring it sould be of little interest for your purchas
Wine Buying - Four Different Alternatives
Visit wine stores, cooperatives or large negociants first to get an understanding of region wines, apertifs, brandies and Cremants. Also to get information on grape varieties, wine styles and prices.
2. Cooperatives – Caves – Famous for serving locals and restaurants wine from pumps and more recently in 3,5, and 10 litre boxes. This excellent local wine is then served in carafes. Cooperatives are member owed associations made up of small vineyard owners. The advantage is the pooling of resources and sharing costs for winemaking and marketing. This means sharing costly equipment, technical expertise, the costs of marketing and cost of a tasting room - shop. The wines are usually excellent values being very competitively priced and the staff are helpful as they are employed to sell wines. In recent years the quality of wines has increased greatly and examples of well known cooperatives are: Burgundy - La Chablisienne - Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte - Alsace -Cave de Turchheim and Cave de Pfaffenheim - Rhone Valley - Cave de Tain'Hermitage - Languedoc –Castlmaure
A Great French Tradition - cooperative wine served in carafes for meals.
3 A négociant also termed Wine Merchant / Trader assembles the grapes or must of smaller growers and performs the winemaking and sells the resulting wines under his own name. (They often also are vineyard owners themselves.) If they buy fermented wine in barrels or 'en-vrac', they may age the wine further, blend in other wines or simply bottle and sell it as is. Shops of négociants like cooperatives tend to a large selection of the region's grape types and wine styles including sparkling wines and aperitifs. Well know Negociants are: Burgundy- Bouchard Pere et Fils, Joseph Drouhin and Vincent Girardin, in Beaujolais - George Duboeuf and in the Rhone - Guigal and Jaboulet
3. Domaines - Vineyards offer the attraction of buying direct from the producer. Often staffed by a member of the family you can ask about any aspect of the wines. They can share an intimate knowledge of the terroir and winemaking methods - sometimes combined with a tour of the winery. This make your purchases memorable. Also their prices should be very competitive and often are your best region value. Remember in visiting vineyards it is especially important to telephone ahead and to show respect in that you are entering not so much a shop but a cross between the wine makers home and place of work. For small vineyards, look for members of The Vignerons indépendants de France (VIF). This is a viticultural trade association based in Paris that promotes and assists small and independent winemakers within France. The association does a lot to encourage best practice in wine production. Bottles from member vineyards will carry the Association logo as a guarantee of standards and quality.
The destiny of the French wine industry was set in 1804, when the Code Napoleon was introduced. This stated that all heirs regardless of age shared inheritance including vineyards equally. The result was vineyard holdings were split .- in some cases meaning offspring owned no more than a single row of grapes. Cooperatives and Negociants became the dominant sellers of wine as it was too expensive for growers to purchase the, wine presses, fermentation tanks and bottling lines necessary to produce a finished wine.